Grapevine-Colleyville's 'virtual academy' won't be easy

Posted Monday, Mar. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Grapevine-Colleyville school district's decision to offer a full-time, open-enrollment virtual academy puts it at the forefront of the merger between education and technology, offering students across Texas the chance of significant learning advantages.

But, as with all cutting-edge advancements, there are pitfalls to avoid. There will be great need to accurately measure student outcomes in the new academy in order to justify continued operations beyond its initial years.

District trustees have approved $196,000 in seed money to create the Virtual Academy @GCISD, which is expected to serve 400 to 500 full-time students and boost the district's enrollment. Once it is up and running, which leaders say will be at the beginning of a new school year in August, per-student funding is expected to come from state allotments that will be the same as for students in Grapevine-Colleyville's traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

By law, state funding comes only if the student successfully completes the instruction and is eligible to be passed on to the next level.

Only two other districts in the state -- Houston and Texarkana -- offer a free, full-time online public school curriculum with its own teaching staff. Online instruction has been used extensively in colleges and universities, both as the sole source of teaching in individual courses and as a tool for "blended learning" using online instruction as a supplement to classroom sessions.

Online learning in kindergarten through high school has a solid foothold in some other states, but as a whole it is considered still in its early stages.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning, iNACOL, has published its Keeping Pace annual report on developments in the field for nine years. The 2012 report says that "just because online learning can work does not mean online learning will work," and "online and blended learning can result in better student outcomes if implemented well, or flat/negative outcomes if implemented poorly."

Research has shown strong benefits from online learning for students in smaller school districts where advanced instruction is not available, particularly in math.

Rocketship Education, a provider of online instruction, is the highest-performing elementary school system in California, the iNACOL report says.

Rocketship "individualizes the education experience for students, adapting to where they are and helping them master skills before moving on," the report says. Again, results are especially good in math.

Unfortunately, studies of some other online schools show students' performance on state math and reading assessments lagging behind that of students in traditional schools. Those assessments, iNACOL says, should be better aligned to measure student growth, not just test passage, an issue with which Texas and many other states have struggled.

Still, the job is to get students up to or surpassing grade-level mastery. If the promise of technology is individualized instruction, the result must be individual success. The no-pass, no-funding method in Texas emphasizes that relationship.

Online learning that replaces the daily classroom experience is not for everyone. For those who want it, quality counts.

For example, Grapevine-Colleyville says its online academy might fit the needs of athletes who wish to train during the day. That's true, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association has strict requirements for nontraditional courses taken by those athletes who want to go on to college-level competition.

Grapevine-Colleyville is to be commended for taking on the challenge of online learning for all Texas students. Serving those students outside the classroom is just as important as serving others in traditional classes. Like all education, it just won't be easy.

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